The Bone Collectors

A pair of biologists on Cumberland Island save the remains of dead sea critters for others to study

On the northern end of Cumberland Island, off the southern coast of Georgia, just across a sandy track from the tiny First African Baptist Church—yes, the one where JFK, Jr., was married—a black vulture greets me in a cluttered compound of wooden buildings. The buzzard perches on a tall fence post, fixes me with a sooty glare and woofs twice, like a small dog. A single drop of saliva glistens from the tip of its decurved beak.

"You get to where you don’t even notice them," Carol Ruckdeschel assures me, nodding toward two more of the scavengers strutting beyond a small garden. Ruckdeschel is slender and pigtailed, her braids the color of live-oak acorns. She holds a scalpel in one hand. In the other she grasps the body of a double-crested cormorant that turned up dead on Cumberland’s beach. The vulture spies the corpse and shifts its weight from one foot to the other. Its time will come.

Each year, 50,000 people visit Cumberland Island National Seashore, most of them accessing what is one of the largest barrier islands on the Atlantic Coast via ferry from Saint Marys, Georgia. They come for the famous live-oak groves, deserted stretches of pristine sand and soaring dune fields. I’ve come for a 20- by 40-foot bare-bones plywood building, the Cumberland Island Museum. It is unadorned and has only one window; sitting inside, you could just as easily be in Nevada, or downtown Atlanta.

The "museum" is actually a research collection, not an exhibition for visitors. There are no public programs; in fact, getting to the Cumberland Island Museum requires a 12-mile hike, much of it through a federally designated wilderness area. But the museum has something even more valuable than the island’s idyllic allure: it houses one of the world’s largest collections of sea turtle skulls, shells and skeletal remains.

 There are bones by the barrelful. Bones bagged and boxed and stacked ten feet high. Bones on the porch, bones in the attic. With few exceptions, they have been collected, cleaned and preserved by Ruckdeschel. She moved here in 1973, after a three-year stint as a biologist with the State of Georgia and a brush with minor fame, thanks to John McPhee’s profile of her in the New Yorker that same year. Once a week for the past two decades, she has monitored the entire 17-mile stretch of Cumberland beach for the washed-up carcasses of turtles, marine mammals and birds. Most of the sea turtles, she believes, die in shrimper’s nets. She necropsies each dead turtle, porpoise, whale and manatee; more than 1,700 in all, to date. She documents the other vertebrates she finds, too, like that double-crested cormorant the vulture eyed hungrily, and eventually ate. She picks up litter. She has driven an all-terrain vehicle the equivalent of motoring from New York to Los Angeles seven times.

In the early 1980s, Ruckdeschel met Robert Shoop, a University of Rhode Island professor of biological sciences. Three years ago, he retired and moved to the island. Now they are partners in life and work, environmental activists for the national seashore, and caretakers for its dead.

The three of us step up to the museum’s porch, careful not to disturb Frisbees filled with piles of fragmented shell. I trip over a bucket containing backbones. "I can’t believe you’re interested in all this stuff," Ruckdeschel says. We step into a small office, and then she opens an interior door.

The room is a riot of plywood shelving and secondhand cabinets. From every horizontal surface glint makeshift specimen jars containing the remains of critters and other things Ruckdeschel has found. One shelf is packed with bottles of snakes, each reptile coiled like a spring, milky-eyed. Another shelf groans with the weight of porpoise skulls. A gopher tortoise hangs suspended in a recycled Talk o’ Texas okra pickles jar. A Tang bottle holds alligator hatchlings, asphyxiated in a collapsed nest.

The two biologists lead me through the catacombs, bathed in fluorescent light. "What are those?" I ask. Those, Ruckdeschel answers, are the stomach contents of birds. Here a snow goose. There a sandwich tern. Here three species of shearwater.
"And that?" A mass of parasites from the cranial sinus of a pilot whale. The fetus of a dwarf sperm whale.

A small white egret in a large jar with a yellowed label: Spanish queen olives.

"And these?" Eye bones and ear bones of sea turtles, by the hundreds.

I am giddy, delirious, and not because of the smell of isopropyl alcohol. When I was in Mrs. Lomax’s sixth-grade biology class back in High Point, North Carolina, I sat next to a floor-to-ceiling display case chockablock with specimen jars just like these. Frogs, baby opossums the size of a dime, sand sharks, bats—I spent hours gazing at their eternal poses. At home, I assembled my own collection. King snakes and bullfrogs and rhinoceros beetles. Pickle jars by the score, displayed like the Little League trophies of my pals. My mother allowed my live snakes to hibernate in the refrigerator’s vegetable crisper. In those days, my life’s work and play were rooted in the specimen jars of Room 106. So now, walking into the Cumberland Island Museum, I seem to glimpse a boy with his face pushed up to glass doors, his passion for living things sparked by things no longer alive, except in their power to inspire.

For hours, Ruckdeschel, Shoop and I ferret through Cumberland’s past lives, pulling out drawers and trays filled with dainty bodies mounted on cedar sticks. But the collection’s real treasure is hoarded away in the cardboard boxes that tower like canyon walls overhead. There are banana boxes, liquor boxes, tomato and peach boxes, each now burdened with brown grocery bags. Each bag holds the remains of a single turtle—skull, ear bones, humerus or femur, perhaps a piece of shell. Each bone was macerated in buckets outside, then cleaned with a toothbrush, dried in the sun and labeled. The skull plates are glued together with a water-soluble adhesive. Ruckdeschel figures it takes one full day of labor to process a single turtle. She has processed more than 600.

To study these treasures, scientists from all over the country beat a track to Cumberland, armed with data sheets and patience. One visiting graduate student spent weeks sorting through turtle-gut contents, parsing each of the 500 gallon-size bags into respective piles: moon snail, micromollusks, whelk, calico crab—two dozen categories in all. Such a database will allow researchers to look at how climatic conditions, channel dredging and other factors affect the turtles’ diet. Another biologist spent ten days poring over bones as part of a research project into the Miocene sea turtles of California’s Central Valley. Another studied bottle-nosed porpoise remains, trying to determine whether an offshore population could be a separate species. Ruckdeschel and Shoop recently began measuring many of the turtle skulls in their collection as part of a study on development in juveniles.

"To some people, these are just bags of old bones," Ruckdeschel tells me, "and we’re the weirdos who love to root in the stink. But they don’t understand." Her voice trails away. She leans against a cabinet that used to house the U.S. National Tick Collection. There are days of grisly labor. Twenty-seven dead loggerheads on a single July Saturday. One afternoon in March that Ruckdeschel will never forget, she and Shoop had been on the beach since sunrise, knives in hand, bent over one corpse after another.

"The sun was going down," she says. "I was working on a turtle and looked down the beach and saw a dwarf sperm whale, barely alive, flopping in the surf." Each word is soft as wind in sea-foam. "We were just wasted. We were 20 miles from home, and we’d already had to work two other whales. But I knew what had to be done. We had to wait for the whale to die so we could do a necropsy right away. A lot of folks think this is a fun job, riding up and down the beach. But we pay our dues." She stifles a yawn with a slender hand. "Looking at your life, you don’t know what will one day be valuable. It could be counting whiskers on earthworms. We just don’t know. I think about that, and it makes me hate to go to sleep."

But it is late and well past bedtime. Morning comes in the middle of the night for Ruckdeschel and Shoop. They arise at 3 a.m. in order to transcribe their field notes from the previous day’s work and do other writing before a new day of collecting begins. Shuffling off into the dark, they give me permission to riffle through the collection on my own while they sleep.

The next day, I ask if there’s anything I can do to lend a hand. It turns out Bob has four feral horse skulls he needs to store in the attic, and I offer to do the climbing. "Better your knees than mine," he says, as I fumble around on top of a stepladder, grasping a horse skull with my thumb in the eye socket like some macabre bowling ball. I can’t find the attic light switch, so I rest my rump on the floor, and let my eyes adjust to the gloom.

From the dark, a long line of horse skulls emerge, queued up on the left-hand side of the attic. Pelvic bones and vertebral columns spill out of labeled cardboard boxes. To the right, there are row upon row of loggerhead shells, leaning one against the other, like dominoes. The scutes are peeling and dried, the color of an old man’s fingernails. I crab walk down the narrow aisle, but I can’t begin to count them all—Shoop figures there are 75 or more. Each one labeled. Each one associated with a bag of bones in a box below. Each one the fruit of hours and hours of labor. Each one the answer to a question we don’t yet know to ask.

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